'Jacoby  Ellsbury' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/5.  Is Jacoby Ellsbury ever going to hit another home run?

Do you guys remember 2011 Jacoby Ellsbury?  Man, he was a fun guy.  That year he hit 46 doubles, five triples, and 32 home runs!  It really looked like he’d taken that next step that several scouts had predicted and many fans had hoped.

Of course, there were red flags all over that season.  Prior to 2011, he’d only hit 60 doubles and 20 home runs in just slightly more than twice as many plate appearances over the previous three-plus seasons.  Despite those concerns, we padded our belief that what our eyes were seeing by searching for any kind of emperical evidence that would support our opinion.  Many of us, including myself, took to Hit Tracker Online, a site supported by ESPN that classifies home runs into various categories, to justify Ellsbury’s performance.  That season, 27 of his 32 home runs were classified as either “Plenty” or “No Doubt”, which signified that his new found power was real, and not just a byproduct of lucky environmental factors that wouldn’t translate year-to-year.  Even though most of us maintained a little skepticism predictions of consistent 15-25 home runs seasons for Ellsbury were widely predicted.

In the 691 plate appearances that have transpired since the end of his MVP-worthy 2011 season, Ellsbury has hit a grand total of five home runs.  With his last one coming on April 7th during the sixth game of the season, he’s now gone 78 consecutive games without leaving the yard.  His batted ball profile this season goes a long way toward understanding why his power has vanished.  After putting up a groundball baseline around 50% from 2007 to 2010, Ellsbury shifted course in 2011.  He replaced many of those ground balls with line drives; thereby dropping his GB% to 43% and raising his LD% to 22.9%.  This change alone allowed him to hit more for extra base power.  In 2013, he’s maintained a LD% above 20%, but his GB% has skyrocketed to 52.4%.  The resulting flyball reduction has helped create a vacuum of power in Ellsbury’s game.  Further complicating the problem is that when he is hitting the ball in the air, pop-ups have become an increasingly common result.

The biggest problem with Ellsbury’s performance seems to be his swing plane.  He’s no longer getting the kind of loft he was in 2011 that allowed him to drive the ball out of the yard.  When he corrects his swing plane, he tends to overcorrect by getting too far under the ball.  It’s possible that his lack of power stems from a simple mechanical issue that needs to work itself out.  Unfortunately, it’s also possible that either (a) 2011 was a perfect storm, and/or (b) his separated shoulder injury irreversibly changed Ellsbury forever.  Either way, it’s looking increasingly implausible that the 2011 version of Ellsbury will ever reappear.

4.  Who are the players of interest on the Lowell Spinners?

While most of the other major and minor baseball leagues are half-way through their schedule, short season A-ball (and Rookie League ball) is just getting started.  The Lowell Spinners play in the New York-Penn League, which is made up 14 teams that span the Northeastern corridor of the US.  The average age of the league is around 21 years old, so the player population primarily consists of recent draftees from the Rule 4 draft and international free agents who have broken the bonds of Rookie League ball.

Unfortunately, given that Trey Ball and Jon Denney were high school draftees, the two most exciting propsects of the 2013 class will be starting in the Gulf Coast League rather than in Lowell.  Still, there are plenty of reasons for intrigue on the Spinner’s squad, if only that they’re more interesting that the Greenville Drive (with the exception of Mookie Betts).  Here are a few key players to watch:

  • Manuel Margot – If there’s one player you should focus on in Lowell, it’s Margot.  While he’s gotten off to a slow start this year, we need to keep in mind that he’s only 18.  He still has a lot to learn.  Margot is a four-tool player (power not included) who should make adjustments before too long.  If he can make them sooner rather than later, there’s a chance he could get promoted to Greenville before the end of the season.  Could become one of the Red Sox’s top 10 prospects by next year.
  • Ty Buttrey – Drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, many see Buttrey as the Red Sox’s best pick of the draft.  His first start in Lowell was immediately forgettable, but he picked himself up with a dominant six inning shut out performance in his second start.  He’s a big, raw projectable righty who throws hard and throws strikes.  One of the more interesting pitchers below high-A ball.
  • Tzu-Wei Lin – After signing for a $2.05M bonus, it’s safe to say the Red Sox think highly of the Taiwanese import.  Blessed with incredible defensive range and excellent speed, Lin doesn’t look to offer much in terms of offense.  At 5’9″ with a small bone structure, he’ll need to rely on contact and plate discipline to hit enough to reach the majors.  Interesting prospect, but may get lost among the plethora of shortstop prospects currently in the system.
  • Teddy Stankiewicz – Stankiewicz was the second round pick in the 2013 draft.  He’s tall righty that features four pitches, including a fastball that sits in the low 90s but can touch 95-96.  Given he’s already done quite a bit of pitching already this year prior to being drafted, he’ll probably be limited to 2-3 inning starts to get him acclimated to pitching in a regular rotation.

3.  What the hell is up with Andrew Bailey?

You got me.  I do know one thing.  Something changed with the calendar turned from May to June.  Prior to June 1st, he was unbelievably dominant.  Since, not so much.  His control has been off (8/7 K/BB ratio), his command has been off (five home runs allowed and a .368 BABIP), and he’s been giving up runs regardless of situational leverage.  Honestly, given his reduced velocity, my guess is that he’s still not fully back from the injury that shelved him for 22 games in May.  On the other hand, it could just be good old fashioned bad performance.  Either way, he’s lost the closer job for the foreseeable future.  To get it back, he’ll have to prove that he’s not only worthy, but also wait for an opportunity to seize it from Koji Uehara.

2.  When will Will Middlebrooks return?

The problem with Middlebrooks has always been his plate discipline.  People were willing to ignore that issue when he was abusing double-A, triple-A, and finally major league pitching over the course of 2011 and 2012.   Unfortunately, his performance masked a major red flag that finally reared it’s head starting late in his season last year and continue into 2013.  To date, he hasn’t made the necessary adjustments (i.e. laying off of pitches low and away) to improve his performance.

The good news is that Middlebrooks is mashing triple-A pitching. He has four home runs in 44 plate appearances, two of which he hit last night. Additionally, he’s managed to reduce his strikeout rate, while taking a few more walks (6/6 BB/K ratio).  While this could be a sign that he’s made that adjustment, he’s in a position where he needs to force the Red Sox brass into action.  Right now, the Red Sox seem to be pretty happy with Stephen Drew at shortstop and Jose Iglesias at third base. Until something occurs that changes that stance (i.e. injury, major slump), he’s stuck in Pawtucket. Both are playing very well, and there’s no reason to disrupt the team to make a change at this point.

1.  How will Jose Iglesias finish his magical season?

Regression toward the mean can be a real bitch.  Eventually, Iglesias will have to deal with a serious dose of it because no player in this day and age (especially a historically light hitting shortstop) can continue to hit .409/.455/.530 for forever.  Despite my long-held belief that he is not a terrible hitter simply going through an amazing stretch, I’ve come to the conclusion that barring a catastrophic regression ridiculously beyond the mean, Iglesias’s season-ending stats will look pretty solid regardless.

I decided to do a few calculations to see what Iglesias’s season would look like at specific plate appearance thresholds, while hitting for his triple-A average of .244/.292/.288 (916 PA) for the remainder of the season.  Why am I using his triple-A rates?  Because that’s the level at which we have the most recent and accumulative data points.  Given he was hitting at a similar rate in triple-A this year as he had in 2011 and 2012, it stands to reason he was hitting at his true talent baseline for that level.

Here’s what his batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash lines looked like:

(Please note, his stats are as of Sunday night.  All rates used for projection purposes from 7/1 on forward were identical to his AAA rates.)

300 PA – .323/.357/.404 (.761 OPS)

350 PA – .312/.346/.388 (.734 OPS)

400 PA – .303/.338/.377 (.715 OPS)

450 PA – .297/.331/.368 (.699 OPS)

500 PA – .291/.326/.360 (.686 OPS)

I stopped at 500 plate appearances even though he’ll never see an additional 355 plate appearances over the final 78 games unless he starts hitting leadoff or second.  Even then, the 500 number is unlikely, and the 450 mark is also a stretch.

Right now, the average American League OPS is .729.  So even if Iglesias hit at his triple-A levels for the next 150-200 plate appearances, he’d still be a better than average hitter for the year.  When you expand that to another 250-350 PA, his season long average dips below the league average, but still sits in the acceptable range for a shortstop with a plus-plus glove.  The conclusion you should draw from this is that Iglesias has played so far beyond his true capabilities at the plate, that he can still look like an acceptable hitter for the season, even if he’s the worst hitter in baseball for the next three months.  His unbelievable performance thus far would mask the huge deficiencies in his offensive game, and lead people to believe he’s better than his true talent level.

I don’t know how Iglesias will finish up.  My hope is that he plays well enough to justify remaining in the lineup every day.  Having said that, he has a lot to prove before I’ll believe that he suddenly figured out how to hit like an All-Star at the highest level while struggling for years in the minors.